But he has done it, in large part, by irritating those same liberals. Whether by design or by accident, Mr. Gabbay keeps popping off in ways that appeal to the right, not to the left. He spurned the idea of a coalition with Arab parties in the Knesset, saying they represented the constituents of the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, not Israeli Arabs. Mr. Gabbay welcomed a beefing up of religious content in public schools. He pooh-poohed the evacuation of West Bank settlements for the sake of peace with the Palestinians.
And he dusted off an old Netanyahu insult about how “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
Mr. Gabbay now insists he was merely making a point about how to woo the more traditional Israelis who want to feel that they share the same values, not just policy views, with their leaders. “I respect everybody, whether they believe or don’t believe,” he said while campaigning last month in Haifa. “But I believe that we have to talk about our Jewish identity. That’s the main thing that unites us all.”
The remark was a dog whistle for the right-of-center voters that Mr. Gabbay hopes to peel away from Mr. Netanyahu, said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a veteran of right-wing governments who now tracks public opinion for the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“The left went crazy,” Mr. Ben-Meir said, “but the right paid attention.”
Mr. Gabbay seems pleased by the attention he is getting, critical or not, though he welcomes it nonchalantly, as if it were a matter of simple math.
Indeed, there is a directness to him, from the coolheaded way he fields questions from voters — listening to them all, to gauge the room, before patiently answering each — to how he decided to run in the first place.
His unlikely path began in the executive suite at Bezeq, Israel’s state-owned telecommunications company, where his father had been a technician. Named its chief executive in 2007, Mr. Gabbay led the company through six years of deregulation, privatization and profit, firing a whole layer of managers so gently, according to one account, that they left his office smiling.
After trying to buy El Al, the national airline, Mr. Gabbay, by now a multimillionaire, helped found the center-right Kulanu party in 2015 and then, when it joined Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, became environmental minister.
He had some successes, but he got no help from Mr. Netanyahu in cutting…